Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell

John Westbrooke sees the French artist’s work from Glasgow put on show in London

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London’s national collections were famously slow off the mark when it came to acquiring the work of Impressionist painters. It was left to private individuals like the shipping tycoon Sir William Burrell, whose collection is one of the highlights of any visit to Glasgow.

But the Burrell Collection is closed for refurbishment until 2020, so an array of 20 works by Edgar Degas have come to the National Gallery in London, to be hung alongside the gallery’s own Degas oils and pastels, marking the centenary of the painter’s death on 27 September 1917.

As it happens, his death was significant for the gallery too: the auction of his own collection marked the first time it received government sanction to go out and purchase European works. It bought 13, though none of them was by Degas himself – it had had its eye on Combing the Hair but was outbid by Matisse and didn’t acquire it until the 1930s. So Glasgow’s temporary loss is London’s gain.

Degas had a conventional academic training in art and spent three years in Italy studying the old masters, before joining the Impressionist movement back in France. And yet his work doesn’t look like that of other Impressionists (he said he wasn’t one, he was a realist), or of old masters either.

He’s chiefly famous for painting ballet dancers: half of his works were devoted to them. He lived near the Paris Opera, which had its own corps de ballet, and visited it 54 times in 1885 alone; but he wasn’t interested in the grandeur of the building or its lavish productions, only in the ballerinas backstage.

The pair in The Red Ballet Skirts are lit from above, their shoulders shining while their feet are hidden in the shadow of the skirts. In Dancers on a Bench they’re resting, stretching, tying up shoes. In Preparation for the Class they’re accompanied by black-clad chaperones. Others rehearse or wait their turn to go on stage, none of them paying any attention to the artist watching them.

Degas preferred the malleable medium of pastel to slow-drying oil: sometimes he sketches in a background with a few zigzag lines, other times he smooths it into a consistent paste for a fully worked image. It might be built up layer by layer on tracing paper; he might add more sheets side by side to extend the picture. And the result often resembles Japanese work rather than that of Europe’s old masters: high point of view, tight cropping (one painting cuts off half of a circular staircase on one side and a dancer’s leg on the other), with large bare areas.

Ballet wasn’t his only subject. Like other Impressionists, he painted modern life. Paris was growing swiftly in the wake of the industrial revolution, and he was interested in the people he came across, at work or play, often ones who had seldom been seen in art: Ukrainian dancers performing, laundresses calling for the next bucket of clothing to wash, jockeys at one of the new racecourses lining up their horses in the rain.

The exhibition also devotes a room to the other motif for which Degas is known: women having a wash. These have always attracted some controversy.

The painter pointed out that most paintings of naked women presupposed an audience: they’re there to be gazed at. He’d already produced his own response to this: Woman Looking Through Field Glasses, in which, as if at the racecourse, a woman stares through binoculars, but directly at the viewer; she herself remains fully clad and inscrutable, her face hidden.

His bathing women mostly don’t have faces; he sees most of them from behind. Many are contorted, much as his ballerinas are: they look like ordinary people getting on with their ablutions, not trying to look alluring, not even aware they’re being observed. That’s the problem, say critics: caught unawares, they turn onlookers into voyeurs.

Perhaps. Looking at things is an artist’s job, and though Degas acknowledged that these works were like peering through a keyhole, he doesn’t seem to be trying to make us salivate over his models; you can’t even tell what sex some of them are until you read the name. Unlike his ballerinas, who have faces and bodies even if they’re too busy to turn them towards us, the bathers are most successful if seen as studies of the twists and turns of the human body.

As its title suggests, this is a dazzlingly colourful exhibition for the coming winter, a rare chance to see some of the finest of Degas’ work from London and Glasgow together, and it’s free .

Drawn in Colour: Degas from the Burrell, at the National Gallery in London until 7 May 2018. Free admission (donations welcome).